Monday, December 21, 2015

Retro Trio: Massacre Gun (1967); The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001); Blades of Glory (2007)

Massacre Gun (1967)

Original Japanese Title: Minaogoroshi no kenjuu

Director: Yasuharu Yasebe

At a glance, Massacre Gun has all of the sheen and polish of the slickest, finest noir crime films. Unfortunately, there is very little beneath the stylish exterior.

The movie follows Ryuuichi (Joo Shishido), a highly trusted lieutenant in the yakuza - the organized crime cadre in Japan. Ryuuichi is loyal enough that he even kills a young woman whom he has been leading on, at the orders of his bosses. This stuns his two younger brothers - Eiji, who is an aspiring yakuza, and Saburo, an up-and-coming boxer. When Ryuuichi decides to leave the life of a yakuza, his bosses begin to apply pressure on him to stay. Things soon escalate from minor skirmishes into all-out warfare between the brothers and Ryuuichi's former employers.

The basic story certainly has the makings of a decent crime tale. The execution, however, is often poor. The characters often act foolishly or completely predictably. It is thoroughly clear from the first 5 minutes that Ryuuichi is the "calm, quiet, thoughtful loner" - an archetype loved by many tough-guy movie fans, including Japanese cinema-goers. The only remote twists are when he decides to turn against his bosses, and when he decides to go completely "massacre gun" on them after they go too far. Aside from these, the plot and characters are fairly paint-by-number. Eiji is the typical hot-head, and Saburo is the kind-hearted prospective boxer who "coulda been a contender" if not for the interference of the mafia (On the Waterfront, anyone?). The mob against which the brothers fight is composed of completely one-dimensional, cardboard cutout gangsters, complete with cliche one-liners and hard stares. Whenever the movie attempts to do something original, it was a bit ill-conceived, such as when the brothers intimidate an opponent by dropping bowling balls on his foot - a foot which, inexplicably, the guy never tries to move. The movie has more than a few such scenes in which the aesthetic was more important than any attempt at organic plot progression. Once you've seen a Scorsese-directed mob torture scene, pretenders are embarrassingly weak-willed.

Perhaps the movie would have been more compelling had the dialogue been more original or the acting been more subtle. Neither was. I can't recall a single line of dialogue which stood out or wasn't predictable. Similarly, the acting was typically exaggerated for many Japanese films, whereby far too many of the actors are trying to deliver their lines with their entire bodies, all of the time.

Massacre Gun is a curious entry into the noir film canon. If you're looking for something of the depth or artistry of classics like Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, or even more mob-centric movies like The Killers, you're bound to be disappointed. If, on the other hand, you simply enjoy the look and general style of hard-boiled crime films, then this one is worth a viewing.

The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001)

Original Japanese Title: Katakuri-ke no koofuku

Director: Takashi Miike

A very strange one that amuses, in its way.

From what I've heard, this movie released with a decent amount of buzz back in 2001. It was being called "an instant cult classic," and similar. Had I known of this hype around the movie, I probably would have been disappointed by it. Fortunately, I knew very little, so I was able to enjoy it for what it was and not what others were telling me it was supposed to be.

The movie follows the Katakuri family, a sextet of Japanese spanning four generations, as they attempt to get their new bed and breakfast to make a profit. The problem is that the B&B is isolated from any kind of attractions and main roads. Making matters far worse is that once a few travellers do show up to stay, they all seem to die horrible deaths, including suicide, heart attack, and asphyxiation under a sumo wrestler, to name a few. Amid all of the death and fretting over economic viability, the Katakuris experience the typical dramas of a sitcom family. The father and mother work hard to support the family. Their son is a typically-disaffected young man, and their daughter is a dreamy, flighty romantic.

Frequently, the Katakuris sing. In a bizarre homage to The Sound of Music, the characters will often break into song and dance numbers about their emotional plights or the grim circumstances of macabre deaths around them.

You can imagine that this all makes for a very peculiar movie. When you add in the fact that the movie periodically shifts into claymation for no discernible reason, then you have a truly unique viewing experience. It's not exactly a great one, but it is unique. My wife and I definitely got a good amount of laughs from the movie, though we were in agreement that this was likely because we had no expectations going in. The movie was clearly filmed on a very low budget, and director Takashi Miike, who directed the brilliant 13 Assassins and about a million other movies of varying quality in the last 25 years, was throwing all kinds of things against the wall in this one. Some of them stick, while others simply slide down the wall and end up in a sloppy puddle on the ground.

Blades of Glory (2007)

Directors: Josh Gordon & Will Speck

This is a Will Ferrell movie that delivers the laughs more consistently than many of his others.

The world of figure skating had long been ripe for parody. In 2007, Blades of Glory got it very right. The two leads, Will Ferrell and Jon Hader, play Chazz Michael Michaels and Jimmy McElroy, two parodies on ice. Michaels is the oversexed "bad boy" of skating, while McElroy is the polished, effeminate, squeaky-clean pretty boy. The two are bitter rivals who are thrust together as a pair after being banned from the sport for fighting on the ice. It's a set up that easily could have fallen completely flat, if not for solid comedy writing and great acting.

I generally like Will Ferrell, though many of his hit movies are mediocre at best. Talladega NightsGet Hard, and Anchorman are a few examples of his movies that provided me with just enough laughs to justify watching them once, but I've never felt the urge to go back to them. Blades of Glory, however, holds up well, even after seeing it three times. The lines are great, and the gags hit far more often than most parodies. When it's not Ferrell's hilarious over-confidence, it's Craig T. Nelson's showing of a decapitation during a pairs skating performance in North Korea. Or Rob Corddry's cameo as the over-serious manager of a second-rate kids show on ice. Since the movie doesn't solely rely on Ferrell's comedic magnetism, its humor can hit you from different directions.

This is a goofy comedy that I'll return to every year or so and thoroughly enjoy, as ridiculous as it is and should be.